How the U.K. Parliament’s Art Collection Is Linked to Slavery

An initial review identified 189 works depicting individuals associated with the slave trade

Saint Stephen's Hall in Parliament
Parliament's halls are lined with art. U.K. Parliament via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As Black Lives Matter protests swept the globe this summer, members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament began looking more deeply into the art that lines Westminster Hall.

Now, reports Rajeev Syal for the Guardian, an initial review has found that 189 of the collection’s 9,500 works depict 24 people linked to the slave trade. Another five 19th-century satirical prints contain racist content. At the other end of the spectrum, 40 works in the Parliamentary Art Collection portray 14 abolitionists. Per a statement, the list of relevant artworks will be updated as research continues.

The early findings demonstrate how some of the U.K.’s most powerful people benefited from enslavement. Robert Peel, a 19th-century politician who twice served as prime minister, in addition to founding London’s modern police force, came from a family with interests in the slave trade. So did 19th-century prime ministers Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, and William Gladstone. The latter’s father was one of the most prolific plantation owners in the West Indies, exploiting hundreds of enslaved workers to ensure a steady supply of sugar and cotton. As a member of Parliament, Gladstone protected his family’s financial interests by speaking out against abolition. The collection includes dozens of portraits and statues of both Peel and Gladstone; Liverpool is cited twice.

According to Harry Yorke of the Telegraph, the trio’s inclusion may “stir debate among historians,” as Peel, though the son of a cotton trader, campaigned for abolition, while Liverpool and Gladstone’s views shifted over time.

A parliamentary committee is looking into how the governing body's collection is linked to the slave trade. Storem via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Speaking with the Guardian’s Syal in June, collection curator Melissa Hamnett said that the Black Lives Matter movement inspired Parliament to investigate how its art was connected to a history of exploitation and cruelty.

“The British empire is part of our story and we have to recognize that many of our collections have a racist history,” she explained. “Let’s be honest about that colonial and imperial past and also look at the slave-owning wealth that endowed some of the artifacts.”

Britain officially abolished the slave trade in 1807. Slavery itself was outlawed in 1833.

In recent years, British researchers have increasingly started looking into slavery’s long-lasting impact on British wealth and the economies of former colonies.

“Slavery has left the most terrible marks and legacies on not just people’s material lives—which it has; the levels of inequality, the levels of under-development of the Caribbean in terms of health and education are deeply shocking—but there’s also the psychic histories connected with that,” Catherine Hall, a historian at University College London, told the Guardian’s Sam Jones in 2013. “They aren’t just over. They carry on.”

Per the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris, an advisory committee made up of members of Parliament will conduct a full review of the governing body’s artwork. In addition to looking at ties to slavery, the committee has pledged to address the representation of people of color in the collection, as well as commission a “significant artwork to permanently mark the impact of Parliament on Black, Asian and other ethnic minority peoples and/or the contribution of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority people to Parliament and its activities, for permanent display in Parliament.”

Currently, the Guardian notes, only two of 300 statues on the parliamentary estate depict people of color: Learie Constantine, the first black member of the House of Peers, and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano.

Learie Constantine and Olaudah Equiano
Just two statues on the parliamentary estate depict people of color: Learie Constantine, the first black member of the House of Peers (right), and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (left). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Parliament’s decision to examine its art collection comes at a time when Brits are placing art’s historical and racial context under increased scrutiny. In June, protesters in Bristol, England, toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbor. And, in response to outcry over the celebration of figures involved in enslavement, the British Museum made changes to several displays, including moving a bust of its founder, Hans Sloane, a naturalist who profited from slavery in Jamaica.

The British government is now warning cultural institutions not to remove statues based on protesters’ demands, reports Reuters. In a recent letter to the British Museum, the National Gallery, Tate and other prominent collections, culture minister Oliver Dowden said that taking down potentially offensive works could jeopardize the institutions’ public funding.

“Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today,” Dowden added. “But though we may now disagree with those who created them or who they represent, they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults.”

Numerous observers have criticized Dowden’s letter as state censorship in service of culture war politics.

“History is littered with autocrats instructing museum curators on what to exhibit,” wrote Member of Parliament David Lammy on Twitter.

The parliamentary committee may opt to add plaques or labels explaining sitters’ links to the slave trade, or perhaps provide audio guides, leaflets and web biographies addressing what Member of Parliament Hywell Williams, chairman of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee, describes to the Telegraph as the “controversial” and “unacceptable” parts of their lives.

“The intention of the Parliamentary Art Collection is not to venerate people who have supported and committed acts of atrocity,” the statement explains, “but to truthfully reflect the history of Parliament, our democracy and the people who played a part in it.”

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